Teaching Children about Cancer

By Robert Sedillo Jr.

Local elementary school teacher and USC grad

Teach cancer in school? Before we answer this question, like a good teacher, let’s define the word TEACH. To teach, as per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means to cause to acquire knowledge or skill. But do you think this knowledge about a subject like cancer should be taught in high school, middle school, or even elementary school? This has been debated in the vacuums of teachers lounges for at least the past 10 years. As a teacher of the sciences, you teach towards the evidence. So, with that spirit in mind, let’s examine the evidence. As per the Center for Disease Control (CDC), between 2010 and 2020, the number of new cancer cases in the United States is expected to go up about 24% in men to more than 1 million cases per year, and by about 21% in women to more than 900,000 cases per year.[i] The good news is that in this same period, the rate of cancer deaths per 100,000 people in the United States is expected to keep going down. On March 12, 2017, CBS Newspoll released the story Majority of US Families Touched by Cancer. It reported that 54% of Americans say they or someone else in their immediate family has been diagnosed with cancer at some point. Cancer seems to have affected Americans of all income levels and geographic locations.[ii] It is very apparent that cancer has and will touch many lives within our circle including that of our children. Like many things which frighten us, it’s the unknown which we fear the most. Go back to your first-grade memories, think about the thing you were afraid of the most. Are you still afraid? Do those crawling creatures still prevent you from sleeping? In most cases, the answer is no. Why? Because as our knowledge and experience become more expansive, so does our understanding of those things around us. As we obtain a clearer understanding of those things which we fear, that fear is either eliminated or at least eased.

As an educator of the sciences, I hope to provide a cross-referenced pedagogical approach in my curriculum to meet both the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the current environment within the communities which I serve. As the CDC has indicated, cancer has touched the lives of many adults and children. The ability to discuss and teach the science of cancer may help our children understand it, and offers hope that they will, just maybe, not fear it when their friend, relative, sibling, or parent says they have cancer.

USC Dornsife, College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, at the University of Southern California has worked closely with USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center through the Young Scientist Program & WonderKids to produce a comprehensive program for teachers in developing curriculum for grades K through 5th grade. In the body of the curriculum for each grade level, it has developed lesson plans covering Oncology, Biotech & Cancer, Genetics of Cancer, and Nutrition & Cancer Prevention within the NGSS. Each grade builds upon the previous grades, building greater knowledge and skill with each grade. For example, learning basic concepts of cause and effect in Kindergarten builds up to knowledge in the 2nd grade on healthy ways to eat. This then builds to comprehending the effect that not eating correctly has on changes in a cell or cancer cells in the 5th grade. The curriculum is hands-on, allowing the student to explore their curiosity, ask questions, and develop their problem-solving skills. If you are an educator or know of one, strongly encourage that they attend workshops that can help them develop a curriculum that incorporates the understanding cancer while meeting the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).[iii]

As an individual who loves to teach, I get excited when I can bring real-life experiences and current events that students can relate to into the classroom, while at the same time meeting the NGSS. Providing young scholars the foundation to their success is not only an obligation but also my responsibility. It is always my pleasure to teach in a way that has the student excited about learning about new ideas and concepts, always striving for that “aha” moment. It is important to give them the tools to think about thinking and create a forum to ask all and any questions. With the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), I have incorporated a cancer theme in my curriculum, teaching concepts over a 2 to 3 week period. I am always more than happy to share what has worked for me in the past with my fellow teachers. Never give up feeding a child’s imagination or harnessing their academic development. As a teacher, it is my hope that these tools will contribute to the next generation of young scientists that will develop the mechanisms, devices, equipment, medicine, and cures so that cancer is something we just read about in our history books.

[i] https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/dcpc/research/articles/cancer_2020.htm. Page last reviewed: August 16, 2018. Content source: Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [ii] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cbs-news-poll-majority-of-us-families-touched-by-cancer/

[iii] https://dornsife.usc.edu/joint-educational-project/jep-programs/